Moscow is one of the world’s most theatrical cities, its boulevards and squares built for performances at a large scale. One of the grandest of all these thoroughfares lined with sculptural structures is Noviy Arbat, or New Arbat Street. Cutting through one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it delineates what the Soviets hoped would be a boundless future. Today it is a haven of capitalism, but it still retains a grandeur that rises above the shops and almost continual traffic jams. It shows that while bigger and more brutal might not be better, it can certainly create exciting and effective urbanism.
The New Arbat’s roots lie in a Stalin-era 1935 plan to facilitate movement and point the way towards ex-urban expansion through roads that would radiate from the core. These roads would run past the Garden Boulevard that defined historic Moscow toward row after row of new homes, punctuated by state institutions, for the new Soviet citizen. War and subsequent shortages delayed construction on most of them; by the time Khrushchev gave the final go-ahead for the plan, in 1959, styles had changed, and what was going to be a street lined with Neoclassical walls became a row of high-rise towers behind a two-story line of stores. Its chief architect, Vasileyvich Posokhin, who was also city architect, had started as a Constructivist before working as a proper Neoclassical Stalinist. But here, he showed himself a convert to what until then was seen as a “foreign” modernism of abstract volumes and little decoration. He used a prefabrication system called tipizatsiia (prefabricated concrete panels on steel frames) to speed construction—once the State had ruthlessly cleared out the existing buildings and their inhabitants.
It could have been awful. Instead, it is dramatic. Posokhin contrasted a row of “open book” designs whose angles create an angular rhythm on the street’s south side, with square towers on the north. (These were originally office buildings, but Khrushchev had them turned into apartments.) The commercial plinth brings the whole composition down to human scale, though the street’s immense width—typical for Moscow—does not make you feel enclosed. There is space and movement everywhere around you, from the wing and block counterpoint to the rush of cars past you.
To mark the New Arbat’s leap over the Moscow River, Posokhin designed a tower for the Council for Economic Cooperation (Comecon: a sort of anti–European Union) as a compacting of the book buildings. Its two curved wings around a central core are sleeker details than featured on many New Arbat buildings; the tower’s completion came about five years after the initial construction of the Street, between 1959 and 1963. Comecon answers the Ukraina, one of the Stalinist “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers, just across the river.
I had the fortune in staying in what is now the Hotel Ukraina last week during one of my trips to Moscow as a member of the Skolkovo Urban Council. I could not help but stand in my room and stare at this magnificent prospect, so wrong in terms of everything we have been taught about making varied, small-scaled urban interventions. Here is a space that is too big and too repetitive, too singular in its functions, and too relentless in its rhythms. Yet few boulevards can match it for its ability to make you feel as if you are part of a larger place, and to make you feel like dancing, like the tower blocks. The syncopation of forms, the sheer breadth of space, and the limited amount of materials also make it feel like a different reality, wholly created by humans, that rises above the confusion of the everyday. I went downstairs, crossed the river, and walked the Street’s whole length, more than a mile. I never felt tired.